Underneath The Arches

By london_will Last edited 171 months ago
Underneath The Arches

London has more corners, and secrets, than anyone could imagine; every now and then, visionaries latch onto one neglected aspect of it and bring it to general attention, in the process transforming our view of the city we thought we knew so well.

Of late, the National Theatre has been rich with that sort of insight. Who really noticed, or cared about, the theatre's flytower until they struck on the idea of projecting films onto it, transforming the concrete terraces of the South Bank, and Waterloo Bridge, into an enormous outdoor cinema? And now, the Shunt theatre group, in collaboration with the National, have done the same for a completely unknown corner of London - the disused catacombs beneath London Bridge Station.

These tunnels and vaults are Shunt's setting for Tropicana.

The show - performance? Experience? Rite of passage? - begins at an unregarded and nondescript steel door opposite the Joiner Street exit of London Bridge Tube Station. In groups of about a dozen, you are led through to the sort of room you might expect behind such a door - shelves of cleaning products, a railway worker doing a jigsaw - and then into a lift. And then into the catacombs - a network of enormous brick vaults that might never have seen the light of day. The space is unused, echoing, slightly chilly, and would be atmospheric enough without its current infestation of theatre types.

What transpires there is difficult to describe. It's quite possibly the closest thing to a dream that a waking person can experience. Performed mostly in the dimmest of lights - and sometimes in total, stygian blackness - with individual areas of focus picked out by spotlights, it provokes a sense of dislocation, an out-of-body feeling that distorts time and perspective. Especially when people appear to be standing perpendicular to the walls. It's the vehicle for what might be described as a decadent exploration of life, death, and afterlife, presided over by writhing, birdlike dancers and white-coated researchers and pathologists. An autopsy in a pole-dancing club. Moulin Rouge directed by David Cronenberg. The humour - which there is a lot of - is as dark as the venue. At the outset, you are led into a room stacked to the ceiling with hamster cages. They're unoccupied, exercise wheels silent. "My animals have all gone," your scientist-guide explains. It's an apt idea - you're the animals now.

In a labyrinth - a maze for a test rat, perhaps - in blackness and in the hands of people who appeared to be quite crazed, at times Tropicana becomes fundamentally unnerving. At other times it provokes genuine, childish delight, the wonderment of having stumbled across a secret. It is, quite simply, the only show in London right now.

Tropicana costs £20 and runs until March, but tickets are selling like Bratz dolls on December 24, so be quick. Put the panto behind you this year. See Tropicana.

Last Updated 03 December 2004